Rene Verdon (left center) // Wikimedia Commons
Rene Verdon (left center) // Wikimedia Commons

The Delicious History of the White House Executive Chef

Rene Verdon (left center) // Wikimedia Commons
Rene Verdon (left center) // Wikimedia Commons

Virginia Woolf once wrote, "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well." That’s especially true for the president of the United States. If you’re going to run a country without losing your mind, then you’re going to need some really good food to get you through the day. Of course, that begs a simple yet significant question. Who’s in charge of putting dinner on the White House table?

Well, that task belongs to the White House executive chef. Since 1961, only seven people have held this prestigious position. Working with a surprisingly small staff, the executive chef is the one who keeps the first family healthy and happy. Plus, when an emperor or prime minister shows up for a swanky White House party, the chef has to make sure all those powerful palates are sufficiently sated.

Sure, it’s incredibly stressful, but when it comes to culinary accomplishments, there’s no job more important than cooking for the president of the United States.


Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford and staff, 2005. By The White House (Shealah Craighead) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As you might imagine, applying for the position of head White House chef is a pretty competitive endeavor. Cooks from the nation’s best restaurants and hotels send in their resumes, and if you’re singled out from the pack, it’s time to impress the first lady.

Chef Henry Haller got the gig one day after interviewing with Lady Bird Johnson, and Walter Scheib won the position by preparing a meal for Hillary Clinton. Similarly, Cristeta Comerford had to come up with a menu to impress Mr. and Mrs. Bush. (Past that, the White House is kind of secretive about the selection process, so we’re all a bit in the dark when it comes to impressing the first family.)

If you’re lucky enough to land the gig, the job starts at 6 a.m. each day, ends well after midnight, and there’s no pay for overtime. The chef takes home somewhere between $80,000 and $100,000 a year, and they earn every single penny. In addition to feeding the first family, the executive chef is also in charge of preparing meals for White House parties and important banquets. Depending on the evening, the chef might be cooking for A-list celebrities, national heroes, foreign dignitaries, or even royalty.

As part of the job, the executive chef oversees three separate White House kitchens. The one located on the second floor is for the president and his family. (The food here is all paid for by the president, and that goes for the meals served at private parties, as well.) Head down to the ground floor, and you’ll find Kitchen #2, which is dedicated to big banquets. And underneath the main level, there’s Kitchen #3 [PDF], which is where all the pastries are made. While the executive chef isn’t in charge of the desserts, she does coordinate menus with the executive pastry chef. A sous chef takes care of the Mess Kitchen for staff in residence.

While the numbers have fluctuated over the years, the present-day executive chef only has a staff of about five people. Naturally, during large events, extra chefs are shuttled in to help feed all the guests. But the State Department also lends a helping hand by sending memos to the executive chef, detailing what food items foreign dignitaries will and won’t eat. The chef also gets inside information because she's a member of Le Club des Chefs de Chefs, a group of 23 men and women who earn their membership by serving as the personal chefs to heads of state. In addition to keeping world leaders healthy and happy, these cooks meet every year to swap tips and recipes.

But even before Jackie Kennedy created the position of executive chef in 1961, presidents had to eat. So who did the cooking?


A long line of people operated the commander-in-chief's stoves and ovens before 1961, including slaves, servants, and sailors. America’s first presidential cook was a slave named Hercules. Some think he might have been trained by Martha Washington, and he spent his days cooking at George’s home in Philadelphia, where the capital was then located. (Hercules escaped to freedom when Washington was preparing to retire.)

Several other Founding Fathers—including Thomas Jefferson—relied on slaves to keep their kitchens going. (John Adams, on the other hand, hired a white couple by the name of Briesler to make his stews and puddings.) Even after slavery came to an end, African-Americans played an important part in keeping the president full. For example, Benjamin Harrison made headlines when he fired his French chef and employed a Black chef named Dolly Johnson, and women such as Ida Allen, Mary Campbell, and Lizzie McDuffie all cooked for Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Some cooks served under multiple administrations, such as Alice Howard, a woman who prepared meals for Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson. And finally, one of the last White House cooks before 1961 was Pedro Udo, a Navy man who served under Dwight D. Eisenhower and impressed the first lady with his ability to decorate cakes.

But that all changed when the Kennedys moved into the White House and created the position of Executive Chef. For the first time in American history, a professionally trained chef had an official government position, cooking meals for the first family and preparing elaborate banquets for parties, state dinners, and events like the Easter Egg Roll. The First Lady chose French-born René Verdon to fill the post.


Verdon was tapped for the job while working as an assistant chef at New York’s Carlyle Hotel; Jackie Kennedy learned about him from the chef of one of her favorite restaurants, La Caravelle, and it seems the man was a perfect fit for the Kennedy White House. He often chatted with the first lady in French, kept the president supplied with his favorite soup (New England clam chowder), and baked cookies for their daughter, Caroline.

When he wasn’t feeding the first family, Verdon could be found harvesting vegetables from the gardens he’d planted on the White House roof. He used his homegrown herbs and mastery of French cuisine to dazzle various heads of state, such as Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister.

However, much like a stereotypical French chef, Verdon could be difficult to work with. For example, while preparing to serve 132 guests at George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, he threatened to quit when he spotted workers pumping the air full of mosquito spray. But after Secret Service agents offered to taste all the food to ensure no one would die of DDT poisoning, Verdon whipped up a meal of avocado and crabmeat salads, among other dishes. The evening turned out to be Verdon’s favorite state dinner.

After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, things changed pretty dramatically around the White House. Lyndon B. Johnson wasn’t a fan of French food; he preferred hamburgers and chili. Verdon was understandably upset and once famously declared, "You can eat at home what you want, but you do not serve barbecued spareribs at a banquet with the ladies in white gloves." The relationship between Verdon and the Johnsons worsened even further when a food coordinator was hired to cut prices by stocking the kitchen with frozen and canned vegetables.

One of the final blows came in 1965, when Verdon was asked to serve a cold puree of garbanzo beans. The chef responded that that particular dish was "already bad hot." At around the same time, the food coordinator was steering Verdon to recipes found in a series of cookbooks. Insulted, Verdon turned in his resignation. The chef fled to San Francisco, where he opened a renowned restaurant called Le Trianon.


Henry Haller with Betty Ford, 1974. By The White House [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

After Verdon left the Johnsons in limbo, the White House turned to Henry Haller. Born in Switzerland, Haller had previously worked at Manhattan’s Hampshire House and made a name for himself in the New York food scene. When offered the chance to cook for the commander-in-chief, Haller seized the moment.

The chef quickly discovered that the president was not especially conscientious: He often told Haller that a dozen guests were coming to dinner that night with just a few hours to prepare. But Haller stayed on and was executive chef for 21 years, feeding five presidents (including Nixon, who, on his last day in the White House, told Haller, "Chef, I have eaten all over the world, but your food is the best," before ordering corned-beef hash with a poached egg for breakfast) and providing meals for over 250 state dinners. He served some of the most powerful people in the world, arranging meals for the chancellor of Germany and the prime minister of New Zealand, and, for the U.S. Bicentennial, serving cold lobster to Queen Elizabeth. But he also served steaks to 1300 guests at a banquet honoring POWs and took charge of more intimate events, from baking cookies for Amy Carter’s Girl Scout troop and cooking for Luci Johnson’s wedding to arranging the menu when the White House hosted Susan Ford’s senior prom. No matter the size of the event, Haller was a man who always got the job done.

Of course, he wasn’t completely in control of his own kitchen. The executive chef works in tandem with the first lady, and some are more laissez faire than others. Nancy Reagan was very involved in the culinary process. Before state dinners, the first lady insisted the kitchen staff perform multiple trial runs, plating and arranging the food until it looked perfect. She would then have someone photograph the dishes so Haller could duplicate her vision down to the last detail.

Haller left the White House in 1987 on amicable terms. As he explained to The New York Times, "I will be 65 … I want to ski. I want to have more time for my family. And it’s time to make more money." After retiring from the office of executive chef, Haller went on to write The White House Family Cookbook, a collection of recipes and memories from his time serving in the executive mansion.


Jon Hill set two records during his time as White House executive chef: He was the first cook born in America to win the position—and he held the job for the shortest time of any chef in White House history. It’s a strange record to set, especially since Hill seemed more than qualified for the part. As the head chef at Fort Lauderdale’s Westin Cypress Creek Hotel, the man was in charge of 100 employees and two entire restaurants. When White House officials went down a list of 30 candidates, Hill was the first pick.

But right from the get-go, things seemed a bit weird. After he was approved by Nancy Reagan, Hill absolutely refused to speak to the press. He even declined to confirm his age (he was 33). Perhaps Hill had decided to let his food speak for him. During his short stint, the man cooked for leaders from countries like Sweden, Spain, and Israel. But while he began working at the White House in the autumn of 1987, he was already on his way out in January 1988.

Nancy Reagan’s press secretary said Hill’s departure was his own "personal decision." But plenty of people believed the Reagans just weren’t impressed with the quality of Hill’s cooking. After a few months, Hill returned to the private sector, where he found success as the executive chef of the Wigwam Resort and later working at Estrella Mountain Community College.


Hans Raffert with Nancy Reagan, 1985. By The White House. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Christmas is a pretty special time around the White House. The place is done up in beautiful decorations, and every December, a specially made, edible house goes on display in the State Dining Room. In recent years, chefs have created some truly impressive White House replicas out of chocolate. But for decades, these home-baked homes were lovingly sculpted out of gingerbread, a tradition that started with Hans Raffert.

Born in Germany, Raffert joined the White House staff in 1969, working as Haller’s assistant chef. That same year, First Lady Pat Nixon tasked Raffert with building a gingerbread house to liven up the holidays. While there had been other gingerbread houses before, the first "official" White House gingerbread building was a pretty simple affair, just an A-frame coated in icing and a few decorations. But over the years, the houses grew bigger, the candy decorations grew more elaborate, and soon the sculptures were surrounded by frosted trees and little gingerbread people.

Raffert remained an assistant chef until Jon Hill resigned in 1988. Naturally, the 60-year-old Raffert knew he was accepting a monumental task, and in interviews, he implied he was probably too old for such a "strenuous job." But as he explained, he was "honored and proud" to serve the Reagans. And while he prepared state dinners and elaborate meals, he always looked forward to December when he could charm the first family with his gingerbread creations.

Raffert built his very last gingerbread house in 1991 for George and Barbara Bush, complete with icing, candy canes, and a tiny Millie (the president’s dog) in the front yard.


Pierre Chambrin, a classically trained French chef, was a man set in his ways. He started his government career as a sous chef for George H.W. Bush, and after Raffert called it quits, the Frenchman was promoted.

Chambrin got along just fine with the Bushes, who greatly enjoyed his buttery entrees, but that all changed when the Clintons showed up. As first lady, Hillary Clinton had some very definite ideas about what should happen in the White House kitchen. Looking to keep her husband trim, Hillary wanted Chambrin to create dishes that were lighter, fresher, and more American. Hoping to get the message across, she sent Chambrin a stack of cookbooks featuring low-fat American recipes. She also brought along several American chefs who consulted with Chambrin, and she even invited a physician to give the White House staff a few tips.

This didn’t exactly mesh with Chambrin’s modus operandi. Chambrin, according to The New York Times, was the kind of guy who didn’t "take orders." One White House employee told the Times that the chef was "incapable of doing low fat. He truly doesn’t understand and isn’t willing to be taught." Thanks to their differences in taste, the Clintons asked the 46-year-old chef to resign in 1994.



After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America and working at a series of high-profile hotels, Walter Scheib wasn’t looking to feed the leader of the free world. But unbeknownst to Scheib, his wife had secretly submitted his resume to the White House. After looking over his application, Mrs. Clinton was so impressed that she personally offered him a job.

When Scheib and Clinton met in April 1994, it was like a match made in culinary heaven. Both were big fans of American cuisine, and they believed the White House kitchen had a responsibility to serve the best foods from each state. In fact, Scheib was such a U.S.-centric chef that he convinced Hillary to serve bison meat at the 50th anniversary of NATO.

When he wasn’t cooking for the emperor and empress of Japan, Scheib was teaching Chelsea Clinton how to maneuver around a kitchen. Unfortunately, his relationship wasn’t quite as warm with George W. and Laura Bush. The new president preferred simpler foods, and according to Scheib, "If it wasn’t baked or fried, [Bush] wasn’t interested." While Laura did appreciate Scheib’s penchant for using organic food, she eventually decided it was time to part ways, and the chef was fired in 2005.

However, during his time at the White House, Scheib worked wonders for a long list of world leaders, from Nelson Mandela and Princess Diana to Boris Yeltsin and Vicente Fox. And he learned a lot about America’s first families during his tenure. In one interview, Scheib noted that "Mrs. Clinton had about 50 or 60 different hot sauces that she liked to use, and Mrs. Bush just had one that she liked, but she would use it on just about everything." He also admitted that while the wives were pretty adventurous when it came to food, both Bill and George "would have been just as happy if we had opened a barbecue pit or a burger joint in the basement." After leaving the White House, Scheib started his own culinary business and even appeared on Iron Chef America.



By now, you’ve probably noticed a trend among White House executive chefs: They've all been white men. That finally changed in 2005, when Laura Bush gave Cristeta Comerford the keys to the kitchen.

Born in the Philippines, Comerford is the second youngest of 11 children. After moving to the U.S. when she was 23, she got a gig working as a "salad girl" at Chicago’s Sheraton Hotel. Every day, her brother dropped her off at work so she could prepare Caesar and Cobb salads. Eventually, she wound up in Washington, D.C., where she worked as the head chef of several hotels before spending some time in Vienna, picking up a few pointers on the art of French cooking.

When Comerford learned that Scheib was looking for an assistant chef, she submitted her resume and beat out 449 other applicants. Her first day of White House work was in 1995, and in 2005, the apprentice replaced the master, becoming the first woman and the first minority to ever earn the title of White House executive chef.

After winning the election in 2008, the Obamas kept Comerford on staff, and when Michelle Obama turned 1100 square feet of the White House lawn into an impressive vegetable garden (complete with a beehive), a whole new world of cooking was opened up for Comerford. During her stint so far, the chef has prepared meals for the likes of Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, Chinese president Hu Jintao, and over 400 guests at the African Leaders Summit.

According to The Wall Street Journal, a typical Cristeta Comerford meal is "known for its Asian spice, colors, and 'extra garlic.'" Similar to her mentor Scheib, Comerford is taking White House cuisine in new directions, and hopefully she’ll continue serving new presidents for years to come.


Personal chef Sam Kass helps Michelle Obama and participating schoolchildren plant vegetables in the White House garden, 2009. Getty

It takes more than one person to keep the president fit and fed. You’ve got assistant chefs and pastry chefs, and every so often, the commander-in-chief brings along his own personal cook. In these strange scenarios, the executive chef takes care of state dinners, while the personal cook is the person in charge of the first family.

For example, when Barack Obama took office, he hired his close friend, Sam Kass, to take care of all the family meals. The Obamas first hired Kass in 2005, back when Barack was starting his Senate career, and Kass helped the family get their lives together, dietarily speaking.

Between 2009 and 2014, Kass kept busy in the kitchen five days a week, and when he arrived in Washington, D.C., he was appointed as the first White House senior policy adviser on nutrition. Before stepping down in 2014, Kass played a key role in Michelle Obama’s "Let’s Move" fitness campaign and used his green thumb to work some botanical magic in the first lady’s garden.

Kass isn’t the only modern-day personal chef, however. Zephyr Wright was Lyndon B. Johnson’s longtime cook, and she specialized in Southern foods like spoonbread, grits, and peach preserves. She was also well-known for her amazing chili recipe. So when the Johnsons moved to D.C., they invited Wright to come along.

While Wright knew how to keep the first family happy, she certainly faced her fair share of challenges. In addition to putting up with Johnson’s late-night habits and surprise guests, she often came into conflict with Executive Chef René Verdon. The Frenchman seemed jealous of Wright’s White House position, especially when Johnson dissed Verdon’s tapioca pudding by asking Wright to make her superior version. René often disrespected Zephyr’s cooking, referring to her chili con queso as "chili con-crete," but the animosity went both ways. Wright wanted a salary equal to her cooking counterpart, but while her paycheck never matched Verdon's, she did convince Johnson to give her a $250 per month raise.

In addition to her cooking skills, Wright’s friendship with LBJ encouraged the president to champion civil rights. Johnson was especially inspired to take a stand when he learned that, during a road trip, his African-American cook had to stop on the side of the road to urinate because she wasn’t allowed to use any gas station restrooms. When the president finally signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, he gave Wright the pen he used to sign the bill, saying, "You deserve this more than anybody else."

25 Things You Didn't Know About Turkeys

Most of us probably associate turkey with a sumptuous Thanksgiving spread, but there’s a lot more to the big bird than how delicious it is alongside your grandma’s famous cranberry sauce. Here are a few bits of knowledge you can drop over the dinner table—when you’re not fighting with your family over white meat or dark meat, that is.


Wild turkey

Wild turkeys once roamed the continent en masse, but by the early 20th century, the entire U.S. population had been whittled down to a mere 30,000 due to hunting and the destruction of their woodland habitats. In the 1940s, many of the remaining birds were relocated to parts of the U.S. with recovering woodlands so the turkeys could repopulate. Despite these efforts, by 1973, there were still just 1.5 million wild turkeys in North America. Today, that number is up to about 6 million.


Wild turkey

The dangly appendage that hangs from the turkey’s forehead to the beak is called a snood. The piece that hangs from the chin is the wattle. These fleshy flaps can change color according to the turkey’s physical and mental health—when a male turkey (called a tom, of course) is trying to attract a mate, the snood and wattle turn bright red. If the turkey is scared, the appendages take on a blue tint. And if the turkey is ailing, they become very pale.


Wild turkey in flight

Well, domestic turkeys that are bred to be your Thanksgiving centerpiece can’t. They’re too heavy. But wild turkeys can, reportedly at speeds up to 55 miles per hour. Though they don’t go very far—usually less than 100 yards—wild turkeys are among the five largest flying birds in the world. They’re in good company: Others on the list include the swan and the albatross.


Wild turkey drinking water

Turkeys don’t swim often, it seems, but they can, by tucking their wings in, spreading their tails, and kicking. In 1831, John James Audubon wrote, “I have been told by a friend that a person residing in Philadelphia had a hearty laugh on hearing that I had described the Wild Turkey as swimming for some distance, when it had accidentally fallen into the water. But be assured, kind reader, almost every species of land-bird is capable of swimming on such occasions, and you may easily satisfy yourself as to the accuracy of my statement by throwing a Turkey, a Common Fowl, or any other bird into the water.”


A handler picking up turkey poop at the White House Turkey Pardon in 2013.

The next time you happen across turkey poop—which happens all the time, we know—take a closer look at it. If the droppings are shaped like a “J,” they were left there by a male turkey. Spiral-shaped poo? The culprit is female.

The citizens of Pilot Rock, Oregon, probably don’t much care about the shape of the stuff, but more about the quantity of it. Earlier this year, Pilot Rock turned to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) for help combating a flock of 50 to 70 wild turkeys that would periodically invade the town, destroy gardens, perch in trees, and poop on pickup trucks. The ODFW offered several solutions, but as far as we know the turkeys still rule the roost at Pilot Rock.


A recreation of the Pilgrims' first settlement

Thanks to historical records, we know for sure that the Wampanoag brought deer, and the English brought fowl—likely ducks and geese.


A drawing of Ben Franklin.
Getty / Hulton Archive / Handout

You may have heard that at least one of our Founding Fathers lobbied hard to make the turkey our national symbol instead of the noble bald eagle. That’s not quite true, but in a letter to his daughter, he did expound on the character of each, which may be where the rumor got started:

“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

“With all this injustice, he is never in good case but like those among men who live by sharping & robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our country…

“I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”


Portrait of Alexander Hamilton
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Yep, A. Ham liked turkey. In fact, he thought eating turkey was practically a god-given right, and once remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day."


Teddy Roosevelt on a hunting trip in Africa.
Getty / Hulton Archive / Stringer

Ol’ TR may have been accustomed to hunting big game, but wild turkeys held a special place in his heart. He believed they were every bit as challenging to hunt as deer. In his 1893 book Hunting Trips of a Ranchman and the Wilderness Hunter, he wrote, “The wild turkey really deserves a place beside the deer; to kill a wary old gobbler with the small-bore rifle, by fair still-hunting, is a triumph for the best sportsman.”


Close up of wild turkey's head

Their fantastic vision is probably one reason Teddy Roosevelt found turkeys such a challenge to hunt. They can detect motion from many yards away, have vision three times greater than 20/20, and have peripheral vision of about 270 degrees. Ours, comparatively, is only 180. And although turkeys can’t see in 3D, they can see UVA light, which helps them better identify predators, prey, mates, and food.


Domesticated turkeys on a farm

You may know Minnesota for producing Prince, the Mall of America, and Target. But we also have the Land of 10,000 Lakes to thank for our Thanksgiving turkeys. According to the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, approximately 46-48 million turkeys are produced in Minnesota every year. In fact, it’s where the turkey that receives a presidential pardon hails from every year. Speaking of which ...


President Barack Obama pardons a turkey in 2011.
Getty / Mark Wilson / Staff

Officially, the tradition of the sitting president of the United States pardoning his Thanksgiving turkey dates back to John F. Kennedy, who decided to let his gift from the National Turkey Federation off the hook. But he wasn't the first president to let a turkey go free: When Abraham Lincoln’s son Tad befriended one of the birds intended for Christmas dinner in 1863, kind-hearted Abe granted it a stay of execution.


Thanksgiving TV dinner

In 1953, Swanson ended up with 10 train cars full of frozen turkeys—260 tons of them—when an overzealous buyer ordered too many turkeys for the holidays. Salesman Gerry Thomas solved the problem by ordering 5,000 aluminum trays and setting up an assembly line of workers to scoop dressing, peas, and sweet potatoes into the compartments. Slices of turkey rounded out the meal, which Swanson sold for 98 cents. The idea was a hit: The following year, 10 million turkey TV dinners were sold.


Grilled meats on a silver tray

Everyone eats turkey in November and December, so there’s not a lot of need for extra poultry promotion during those months. If you want to celebrate National Turkey Lovers’ Month, you’ll have to do it in June with some turkey brats and burgers on the grill.


Roasted turkey on a platter

That’s how long it typically takes the birds to grow to maturity, which is when they’re usually slaughtered.


Loren Javier via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

At one point, Disney thought Pocahontas needed a little comic relief, so they hired John Candy to voice a wisecracking woodland fowl named Red Feather. Sadly, Candy passed away while the logistics were being worked out, so animators dropped the turkey entirely and opted for a clever raccoon named Meeko.


Close up shot of a wild turkey

If you hear a turkey making the distinctive noise we all associate with them, then you’re hearing a male communicating with his lady friends up to a mile away. Females make a clicking sound instead of a gobble.


A black and white photo of a family gathering around the table as the mother brings in a turkey.
Getty / Evans / Stringer

According to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans eat turkey at Thanksgiving.


A large Kentucky Fried Chicken sign

When KFC opened its first stores in Japan in the 1970s, the company was surprised to find that sales soared during the holidays. The phenomenon stymied executives since most of Japan celebrates neither Thanksgiving nor Christmas. It was later discovered that foreigners craving holiday turkey had decided that KFC’s chicken was the next best thing. After the company figured this out, they played up the association with their “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” campaign—“Kentucky for Christmas.” It worked on tourists and locals alike, and today, Christmas Eve is still the highest-selling day for KFC Japan.


A flock of turkeys on a farm with one staring directly into the camera.
Getty / Cate Gillon / Staff

You probably know that a group of turkeys is a flock, but they can also properly be called a “rafter.” And should you want to call baby turkeys something a little more precise, you can call them “poults.”


A Maya tripod plate featuring a bird
Los Angeles County Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Archaeologists have found vases dating from 250-800 CE that have turkeys depicted on them. According to University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee art historian Andrea Stone, "turkeys were quintessential animals for feasting and for sacrificial offerings." The Maya even crafted tamales shaped like the birds.


Julia Child in her kitchen in 1978
Lynn Gilbert via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Even when she was at peak popularity, the famous chef refused to remove her phone number from public listings. According to friends, complete strangers would call Child on Thanksgiving to ask for advice on cooking the perfect turkey. Julia always answered the phone, and typically told callers whatever they needed to hear to get them to relax and enjoy the holiday. She even told some amateur cooks that turkey was best served cold anyway.


Big Bird and Elmo at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Getty / Matthew Peyton / Stringer

Well, according to Sesame Street, he’s actually a canary—but his plumage makes him a turkey. The good people at American Plume & Fancy Feather provide Sesame Street with several thousand turkey feathers per costume to make sure Big Bird looks soft and fluffy.


Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey

But the whole thing was a mistake. Centuries ago, the English began to import a rather tasty bird, now known as a helmeted guinea fowl, from Madagascar. But they didn’t know it was from Africa. Because it was imported to Europe from merchants in Turkey, the English believed the birds were also Turkish.

Later, when the Spanish arrived in the New World, they discovered Meleagris gallopavo—the wild turkey. It was delicious, so they started importing it back to Europe. Europeans thought it tasted like the “turkey” guinea fowl they had been enjoying, so they called it the same thing.


Roasted turkey legs on a piece of butcher paper

It’s just a different type of muscle than white meat. White meat is the result of glycogen, which doesn't need much oxygen from the blood because the muscles it fuels only require short bursts of energy. Dark meat, however, is found on wings, thighs, and drumsticks—muscles that are used for long periods of time and require more sustainable energy. It’s made dark by the proteins that convert fat into energy.

The White House Cook Book
10 Odd Historical Hints for Preparing a Turkey
The White House Cook Book
The White House Cook Book

While making a full Thanksgiving spread today takes time, effort, and stress, it's a piece of cake compared to what people had to deal with before modern conveniences. Here are ten tips for cooking turkey the 18th- and 19th-century way that might seem a little strange today.


Before the advent of the modern processed turkey—plucked clean, gutted, and rinsed, with gizzards and neck in a handy bag ready for making gravy—preparing the Thanksgiving turkey was not for the faint of heart. The Cook's Own Book by Mrs. N. K. M. Lee, published in 1832, gives a quick rundown of the steps:

To prepare a turkey for dressing, every plug is carefully picked out; and in drawing turkeys and fowls, care must be taken not to break the gall bag, nor the gut which joins the gizzard, as it is impossible to remove the bitterness of the one, or the grittiness of the other. The hairs are singed off with white paper; the leg-bone is broken close to the foot, and the sinews drawn out—a cloth is then put over the breast, and the bone flattened with a rolling-pin, the liver and gizzard, made delicately clean, are fastened into each pinion.

The breast bone was broken to give the turkey a rounder, fatter appearance. Today selective breeding has taken care of that, with modern birds weighing up to twice as much as the birds Lee would have worked with, giving them that desirable, Rubenesque form even before they make it to our kitchens.



The bitterness of gall, so ineradicable in 1832, was treatable by the time Marion Harland's Common Sense in the Household was published in 1884. The cure was the same thing that fixes pretty much every other household ill: a teaspoon of baking soda. Added to the next-to-last water rinse of the turkey cavity, baking soda could defunk even gall taint. The manufacturers who trademarked the Arm & Hammer line began selling bicarbonate of soda in 1846, so its deodorant properties were well-known four decades later.

Mind you, Marion Harland was appalled that such a step should even be necessary: 

There is no direr disgrace to our Northern markets than the practice of sending whole dead fowls to market. I have bought such from responsible poultry dealers, and found them uneatable, from having remained undrawn until the flavor of the craw and intestines had impregnated the whole body. [...] " But don't you know it actually poisons a fowl to lie so long undressed?" once exclaimed a Southern lady to me. "In our markets they are offered for sale ready picked and drawn, with the giblets—also cleaned—tucked under their wings."


The White House Cook Book

Amelia Simmons' American Cookery, first published in 1796, was the first cookbook to embrace American cuisine as separate from British, with an emphasis on indigenous ingredients like turkey, corn, squash, and potatoes. It was so popular it was reprinted for 30 years under its own name and widely plagiarized under other names.

Ms. Simmons has two recommended turkey stuffings, the main difference being the saturated fat and the meat ingredient. No salted pork handy? Beef suet will do the trick.

Option 1: "Grate a wheat loaf, one quarter of a pound butter, one quarter of a pound salt pork, finely chopped, 2 eggs, a little sweet marjoram, summer savory, parsley and sage, pepper and salt (if the pork be not sufficient,) fill the bird and sew up."

Option 2: "One pound soft wheat bread, 3 ounces beef suet, 3 eggs, a little sweet thyme, sweet marjoram, pepper and salt, and some add a gill of wine; fill the bird therewith and sew up."

A gill is a quarter of a pint, which leaves a lot of wine left in the bottle for the cook who is most certainly going to need it. 



Forcemeat is fat, meat, and seasonings ground together into a smooth emulsion. Nowadays we see it in the form of pâté, mousselines, liverwurst, sausages, Spam, Spam, hot dogs, and Spam. Susannah Carter tells us in the 1803 edition of The Frugal Housewife how to stuff a turkey with forcemeat:

A turkey when roasted, is generally stuffed in the craw with forc'd-meat, or the following stuffing: Take a pound of veal, as much grated bread, half a pound of suet cut and beat very fine, a little parsley, with a small matter of thyme, or savory, two cloves, half a nutmeg grated, a tea-spoonful of shred lemon-peel, a little pepper and salt, and the yolks of two eggs.



According to Mrs. Lee in The Cook's Own Book, if you're going with a forcemeat stuffing, then you must serve the turkey with a classic English delicacy, "bread sauce in a sauce tureen."

Put a small tea-cupful of bread crumbs into a stewpan, pour on it as much milk as it will soak up, and a little more; or instead of the milk, take the giblets, head, neck, and legs, &c. of the poultry, &c. and stew them, and moisten the bread with this liquor; put it on the fire with a middling-sized onion, and a dozen berries of pepper or allspice, or a little mace; let it boil, then stir it well, and let it simmer till it is quite stiff, and then put to it about two table-spoonfuls of cream or melted butter, or a little good broth; take out the onion and pepper, and it is ready.



If you're not into suet, forcemeat, or salt pork, you could always "boil and mash 3 pints potatoes, wet them with butter, add sweet herbs, pepper, salt, fill and roast" the turkey with that instead. Why have your buttery, smooth, golden mashed potatoes as a side when you could just cram as much of it as necessary to fill the cavity of your 20-pound bird? That way you wouldn't even have to add any gravy to the potatoes since they'd taste entirely like turkey already.


The Frugal Housewife asserts that "when your fowls are thoroughly plump, and the smoke draws from the breast to the fire, you may be sure that they are very near done. Then baste them with butter; dust on a very little flour, and as soon as they have a good froth, serve them up."

Why would you want "a good froth" on your turkey, you ask? According to An Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy by Thomas Webster and Mrs. William Parkes, published in 1855, all meat should be "frothed" before serving "to plump up the skin of meat or poultry, by which the appearance of the joint is much improved."

If encasing the turkey you just spent hours roasting to crispy-skinned perfection in a foamy blond roux just before serving doesn't sound "much improved" to you, you can kick it up a notch with other dredges like "flour and grated bread," "sugar finely powdered, and mixed with pounded cinnamon and grated bread" or "fennel seed, corianders, cinnamon, and sugar, finely beaten, and mixed with grated bread." 



Amelia Simmons suggests turkey be served "with boiled onions and cramberry-sauce, mangoes, pickles or celery." I don't know why we decided to standardize the spelling of cranberry with an n, because cramberries is clearly the empirically superior word. As for the mangoes, they were introduced to Britain's American colonies in the 17th century and were pickled, since the fresh ones couldn't withstand the long journey from the tropics. By the time American Cookery was written, pickled mangoes were so widespread that "to mango" was another word for pickling, as you can see in Simmons' "To pickle or make Mangoes of Melons" recipe.



"There are two side bones by the wing, which may be cut off; as likewise the back and tower side-bones: but the best pieces are the breast, and the thighs after being divided from the drum-sticks."
A New System of Domestic Cookery by Maria Eliza Rundell, 1807.

"Do not help any one to the legs, or drum-sticks as they are called."
Directions For Cookery, In Its Various Branches by Miss Leslie, 1840.

"The prime parts of a fowl are the wings, breast, and merrythought. The legs, except of young fowls, are considered as coarse. The thigh part, when separated from the drumstick, is sometimes preferred by those who consider the whiter meat of the fowl as insipid."
An Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy by Thomas Webster and Mrs. William Parkes, 1855.

"The lower part of the leg (or drum-stick, as it is called) being hard, tough, and stringy is rarely ever helped to any one, but allowed to remain on the dish."
The White House Cook Book by F. L. Gillette and Hugo Ziemann, 1897.


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